Experimenting

Cloud moving in over Oxbow Outlet, Oil on canvasboard, 16X20

I stopped to see my pal Jamie Grossman last week, and we fell into a conversation about sketchbooks. We both use them religiously, but (unlike Jamie) I tend to use the cheapest sketchbooks available and fill them with scribbled notes. Ever generous, Jamie gave me a Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook and suggested I try using it with watercolors, gel pens, acrylics, or ink instead of simply drawing with a pencil or graphite stick.
Sketch #1, from the seat of my car.
Jamie does lovely sketchbooks that hover on the line of being artist’s books—very lovely, very lively. I’m not interested in going there, but I can see the value in doing color sketches instead of pencil sketches. And all mental stretches are a good thing, right?
Balanced sketchbook on top
of my pochade box. 
I like to sketch whenever I have to sit, so I brought it with me to church last Sunday. However, a dynamic young rapper named CuevasWalker was preaching, and he defied capture in any form except the loosest gesture drawing.
I am in a self-imposed hermitage this week, which seems like the perfect opportunity to test Jamie’s idea. I brought only a #2 pencil and a Cotman pocket watercolor kit (with its one brush). My reasoning is that if my sketch kit expands beyond what I can put in my pocket, it’s useless.
Sketch #2. I still can’t bring myself to
paint across the spread like Jamie does…
Obstacle number one was apparent as soon as I reached my location: sketchbooks don’t fit on easels; they need to be balanced. My first sketch, therefore, was done from the driver’s seat of my trusty Prius—and I worked very fast because I was parked in a fire lane.
I tried again, balancing the sketchbook on top of my pochade box. That worked just fine, but I don’t think this sketch told me more about my composition than a pencil drawing would have.
Bug repellent… a necessity in
the spring in the Adirondacks.
Then I moved to oils. And that ended up being one of those transcendent experiences where one is totally engrossed in the process of painting, and whether it turns out well is immaterial (although, looking at these sketches, I do wish I’d worked from my original vantage point). 

I will try this process again today. Marilyn Fairman joins me to paint for two days. I’m both excited to paint with her and sad to see the solitude end.

P.S. Sorry about my month’s absence. We were marrying off our eldest, and that was an amazing project in itself, one which left no time for other creative ventures.

The place itself…

Flailing around

“Spring fever”(figure sketch, oil on canvas, 24X30)
Inevitably, someone will ask me, “How long did that painting take you?” This is a question I dread, as it is unanswerable.

This figure sketch was done last Saturday and took me about four hours of actual painting time—three hours with the model, and one hour to rough in a background. But that’s misleading.

I have painted this model for years. My studio is full of paintings of her—good, bad and indifferent. To some degree, every one of them was practice for this painting, just as this painting is practice for ones that will follow. Some were trips down dead ends. Some are works that stand up in their own right.

At this point, the model and I know each other pretty well. When she’s under the weather, my canvas shows it. And when she’s full of beans (far more often than not) it shows that too.  Painting the same model or a small cadre of models allows the artist to learn the subject and produce work that’s perhaps not as superficial as might otherwise happen. (The same is true of painting the same locale repeatedly.)

Occasionally, a student will complain about this repetition, but I feel pretty secure in saying that they have my permission to complain after they nail it perfectly. Since I never do, I don’t expect any of them to be calling my bluff any time soon.

The Saturday before last was one of those days of—as my friend Brad Marshall so aptly describes it—“flailing around.” But in that bad day of painting (and I’ve embarrassed myself by showing you just how bad it gets) was the germ of the following week’s better (albeit hardly perfect) painting.

I’m distracted: it’s income tax time, and my oldest child is being married in four weeks. On top of that, it has been an enchantingly warm spring and I can’t help but think about being outdoors right now. Neither could  the model, evidently. During a break I looked up to catch her staring out the window—and that was, in fact, the pose I was looking for. (More frequently than not, the pose I want to paint is one taken by the model when she’s not consciously posing.)

Headed for the slops pile: the prior week’s figure attempt. Promise you won’t let it get around.
So this prior painting will go in the slops pile, where I will allow it to ferment until I am absolutely certain there is nothing left to be mined from it, at which point I’ll slash it and get rid of it. Because for every painting that is decent, there is one or more that are… not failures, exactly, but stops on the way. My friend Marilyn Fairman, who is more fiscally conservative and scrapes down paintings she doesn’t like, calls those moments “saving the canvas,” as in, “I drove over to Piseco and saved a canvas today.” (She says it’s far better than leaving it to suffer.)

We all recognize those misfires as essential to producing the work we really want to make. As my pal Mary (a writer) says, “I’m typing along, and I’ve got an awning and a flowerpot and whatever else I can throw in there; it’s really bad, it’s schlock, but I keep typing and then suddenly, if I persevere, something comes together.”

The important thing is to get past the idea that “this work is good; ergo I’m a good artist.” A good painter is simply one who persists at painting.

Adirondack Wild, a plein air painting workshop

The porch at the Irondequoit Inn at dusk… a beautiful, relaxing place to listen to the loons on Piseco Lake.
A few years ago, my husband and son signed up for a father-son canoe trip in Speculator, NY. Because I’m always restless to paint, I rode up with them. And because I live near IrondequoitBay on Lake Ontario, I naturally booked a room at the Irondequoit Inn in Piseco, sight unseen.

That was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Canoes and kayaks near the beach at Irondequoit Inn, photo courtesy of Eric & Liz Davis.

Over my life, I’ve backpacked in the High Peaks, visited Ausable Chasm, camped along the Fulton Chain, toddled through Santa’s Workshop, been to the top of Whiteface Mountain in an overheating old Chevy station wagon, scouted for “Herkimer Diamonds,” pored over old boats at the museum at Blue Mountain Lake, hiked up to Lake Tear of the Clouds. But although I’ve painted all over the world, I had—until that trip—never painted in the Adirondacks.
Irondequoit Inn from their private island on Piseco Lake.
Cool photo, huh? Taken by Eric & Liz Davis.

Several years ago, I taught in the southwest desert. It was very interesting, and I came home having made some wonderful friends and taken some great photos, but I really got no brilliant work done.

Mill Stream, on the Irondequoit Inn grounds, photo courtesy of Eric & Liz Davis.
There were two limitations. The first is that the southwest desert doesn’t resonate with me in the same way as the northeast does, despite the fact that it is theoretically more painterly, being a land of broad vistas and warm colors. The second is that distances are so great that we spent an inordinate amount of time driving.

This year I am teaching a painting workshopin conjunction with the Irondequoit Inn’s 120th Anniversary, from September 30-October 5, which is the height of leaf season in the mountains.
My painting buddies will love the ambiance of this old-fashioned Inn, with its broad porches, antique furniture and casual charm. There is a beach, an island, and three streams on the Inn’s own property, along with three wonderful lakes within spitting distance: Piseco, Oxbow, and Lake Pleasant, meaning that no long drives need be undertaken.


Weather closing in on Piseco Lake outlet.

The price is fantastic—$775, including lodging and meals—even our box lunches for out in the field! And because the Inn is doing the management, I am free to concentrate on what I do best—teaching painting.
Here is a link to the brochure, and a link to more images (in no particular order). My NYC painting pals should note that they can take the train to Rensselaer/Albany and rent a car from there. (Or, if you don’t drive, they should contact me and I’ll see what I can do to arrange a car pool.)
I do hope you are able to join us.

What is talent?

“Bras,” oil on canvas, Kamillah Ramos, 2012. This was painted after five months of study.

Every year I seem to get one kid who draws wonderfully. Sometimes, this kid has managed to decode the rules of drawing on his own. More typically, he has studied outside of school. But however he does it, to the casual observer, he appears to have “spontaneously” learned to draw.

In turn, his teachers identify him as talented, and he is a star of his public school art program. Meanwhile, the majority of kids are vaguely encouraged toward self-expression but never challenged to learn the craft of making art. Nobody considers them particularly talented.

A drawing by this year’s star pupil, Sam Horowitz. Of course he can draw this vacuum cleanerhe’s studied not only with me but with the wonderful Sari Gaby.

As an educational model, that’s bizarre. If we taught math like that, we’d have only one kid a year who mastered calculus. If we taught English like that, we’d be a nation of illiterates.

There is no more a “genius” for art than there is one for math, and it’s a terrible disservice to both students and society to not teach the craft of drawing to all young people.

When I was in school, art instruction was undergoing a sea change. There were some teachers who still taught the technical skill of drawing, but they were being replaced by a generation who emphasized emotional intensity and ideas rather than the nuts and bolts of observation and description. I was fortunate in having superlative draftsmen as teachers, but I’m among the last generation for whom that was a given.

Almost no kids come to my private studio with any experience in observational drawing. They don’t even know there’s a difference between observational drawing and copying photographs. They have never learned the systems of perspective, measurement, and proportion that were drilled into us in an earlier time.

The painting at the top of this page was done by a high school senior. She started studying with me in August, 2011, having had no prior instruction. She is not someone who could teach herself to draw, and hence she wasn’t identified as “talented.” However, she is extremely bright and hardworking. Moreover, she has a story she’s anxious to tell. In five months time, she has gone from not being able to draw at all to being able to paint at this level: not by concentrating on self-expression but by practicing the core disciplines of drawing and painting.

I’m not worried about her future, but she isn’t going to art school because she didn’t have time to develop the chops needed to put together a mature portfolio. But what if she had been taught to draw in elementary school, as I was? How might her life be different?

And what about all the people who never have the chance to learn the skill of drawing? How many potential Manets or Velázquezes have we squandered?

“Annabel,” graphite on paper, Gwendolyn Linn

This drawing was done by an adult student. She has been hampered by her lack of drawing chops, so I taught her to measure and check angles. This is her first drawing with that skill set, and shows just how quickly one can progress with a little practical instruction.